Smart UK retailers grow online sales

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NextUK Reuters. Shoppers pass in front of Next clothing store on Oxford Street in central London in this file picture.

London - On Friday retailer Next joined John Lewis and House of Fraser in the UK Christmas winners column as those retailers with a consistent approach and a compelling multi-channel offering triumphed in the battle for festive business.

Next, the UK’s second-largest clothing retailer, raised its full-year profit forecast after sales significantly exceeded company expectations, sending the shares up as much as 11 percent. Like John Lewis and House of Fraser, which on Thursday reported stronger holiday sales, growth was driven by its online business, while Next also avoided the pre-Christmas discounting that led Debenhams to forecast a profit slide.

“Retailers that have been absolutely consistent and aren’t chopping and changing their strategy, like Next and John Lewis, are winning hands down,” said Bryan Roberts, an analyst at Kantar Retail in London. “Next shoppers know there are no pre-Christmas sales, whereas customers have punished Debenhams for its somewhat random sales. Nothing infuriates people more than seeing your item on sale the day after you paid full price.”

The gap between UK retail’s winners and losers widened this Christmas, with those that maintained pricing discipline and made it simple for shoppers to collect online orders from their stores coming out on top. Next, the owner of the UK’s biggest home-shopping business, stuck to its policy of waiting until December 26 to cut prices, while the likes of Debenhams chased sales with price cuts, eroding profitability.

Discounting before Christmas “just wasn’t a question” for Next, chief executive Simon Wolfson said. “Ultimately you are competing against your own numbers last year, so if you didn’t discount last year it’s easier not to discount this year.”

Like John Lewis and House of Fraser, Next also cited surging online orders as a reason for its successful holiday season. Sales at the Next Directory unit rose 21 percent, with more people shopping up to the weekend before Christmas because of increased confidence in online deliveries, the retailer said.

Click-and-collect, where customers order online and pick up the purchase from their local store, was a particular area of growth. About 20 percent of Britons bought items online for in-store collection in the run-up to Christmas, according to a survey conducted by digital-products creator Foolproof.

More than a third of online orders placed with Next are collected from stores. John Lewis said orders placed through the channel were up 62 percent on the year before.

“It’s set to become more important as mobile commerce really takes off in 2014,” Kantar Retail’s Roberts said.

More winners and losers of the holiday season will emerge this week, with Tesco, Marks & Spencer (M&S) and J Sainsbury among retailers due to report.

M&S, which gave discounts of as much as 50 percent just before Christmas, may report the first growth in same-store sales of general merchandise since 2011. Sales in that division rose 1 percent in the third quarter from a year earlier, a survey of six analysts forecast.

The UK’s largest clothing retailer underperformed the apparel market in the 24 weeks to November 24, analyst Jamie Merriman at Sanford C Bernstein said on December 30, citing data from researcher Kantar that is not publicly available.

M&S sales grew 0.2 percent in the period, compared with total market growth of 0.9 percent, he wrote. By comparison, Next’s sales gained 5.5 percent.

Sainsbury may report a drop in same-store sales, halting 35 consecutive quarters of growth, according to Jefferies International analyst James Grzinic. He estimates a fall of 1 percent excluding petrol in the third quarter. Grzinic expects Tesco to post a 2 percent drop in UK same-store sales for the six weeks to January 4. – Gabi Thesing for Bloomberg



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